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The Silo Mentality: Keeping It Up While Breaking It Down

Glass silos

Building glass silos. Making them transparent and permeable.

I’m going to try something new and actually follow up to a previous post that I wrote, oh, nearly four months ago. In the article (yes, I’ll call it an article) “The Silo Mentality: It Can Be A Good Thing If You Don’t Do Your Own Thing,” I argued that the Silo Mentality isn’t inherently evil. As an example, I argued that a small team of software engineers who specialize in developing pedagogical tools are going to have (and need!) different processes and standards than a huge team responsible for enterprise-wide applications. To bring it down to common sense: It’s often necessary for departments to be different–after all, if they weren’t different, then why bother separating the departments in the first place?

Silos only become troublesome when they are truly isolated from each other. Silos that don’t interact start duplicating efforts and start needlessly competing for the same resources. At the same time, they stop sharing information, and cease to take advantage of expertise that certainly exists outside their walls.

So to break down silos without actually tearing down the walls, one article recommends that an organization make those walls transparent and permeable. Transparency implies that individuals outside of the silo can see into it. They can view the people, processes, and products of the silo–get a clear idea of what work being done. This assures outsiders that whatever is happening within the silo is best for the overall organization, and therefore builds confidence and trust, perhaps even respect. Permeability suggests that there is an exchange of information between those within the silo and those outside of it. The benefits of this are–well, the article tends to use the words “leverage”, “optimization”, and “expertise” a lot when what it really means is that a permeable silo gets people talking to each other.

Which brings us to yet another commonsensical point: Remodeling our silos means communication. Yes, that old gem. We’ve all heard it before. And we all know we should be doing it.

Many of us within Harvard University Information Technology (HUIT) have been attempting to make our individual silos more transparent and permeable through various methods of communication. Here’s how:

First, we have the blessing of the organization and its senior leadership team to go about doing so. The overall culture of the organization is based on four core values, two of which are to be open and collaborative. This gives us the freedom and the motivation to reach out to each other.

Our leadership is also sponsoring a series of Open Houses, in which each major area, such as Security, Infrastructure, Academic Technology Services, etc. devotes an afternoon to opening their doors so the rest of the organization can stop by and see what they are doing. These Open Houses have blossomed into actual events where the entire organization gets together to play games, eat, drink, and socialize while, at the same time, learn about the department they are visiting.

For the software development teams, the HUIT Software Development Standardization Project assembled a core group of software engineers and management from all over the organization. Our goal was to create a series of high-level recommendations (and the keyword is “recommendations”) for development teams to consider. This way, we brought the disparate groups together to discuss common issues, and arrive at potential ways to solve those issues. At the same time, we didn’t force any one solution on the teams.

The Standardization Project has continued in various incarnations over the years. Most recently, a core group of developers has been sponsoring a monthly series of events called The Month of Things, where we pick a topic, such as accessibility, and cover it over the course of four weeks, the first week being a brown bag, the second week a workshop, the third week office hours, and the fourth week a free lunch.

Finally, developers from various academic technology teams have been getting together in an informal Community of Practice, wherein we meet monthly over lunch, and one of us presents a topic that might be of interest to the other developers. We also end up sharing ideas, and a collaboration or two has sprung up as a result of the meetings.

Despite all the talking, sharing, and collaboration, we’re all still working in our own silos, and that, as I ave stated before in so many words, is a Good Thing. The important aspect to remember is that the silos have become more permeable and transparent. They are silos made of glass, with many open windows and doors.


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